Do You Understand Organic Part I Part I

A complex and divided issue. It is also a field of heated debate, philosophy to some, ethics are involved, politics of course...

I will be approaching it from different standpoints, as that seems to be the only possible way to tackle the phenomenon. I promise you some interesting and unexpected turns.

In order to understand the subject better, we will brush up on some basic chemistry, because it pays to know a little chemistry when it comes to buying into a concept that is based on questionable interpretation of science. Besides, chemistry, as all science, is inseparable part of life and Universe

First off - ‘organic’ is a misnomer.
Organic chemistry is a truly gigantic area of chemistry, built around the atom of carbon and based upon the particular chemical bonds it creates. These bonds are the basis of life. Natural as well as synthetic compounds belong to this group. Among them, both the natural and the synthetic, there is some of the most poisonous matter on earth, there are proteins we eat, there is gas that moves the engines of cars, vitamins are organic, so is everything plastic, hemoglobin in our blood cells is organic, Velcro is organic, DNA is organic, paper is organic...

Of course, when you hear that something is organic and concerns you as a consumer, you don’t think plastic, but simply the organic method of farming. But you see, as long as there is ‘organic’ that can mean both everything I listed above and what interests you, there is room for some creative use of words. I have seen ‘organic’ applied to parabens on a label or two. It was not an incorrect statement. However, its implication was misleading. Even ridiculous in this case – parabens haven’t even passed by a farm, except on a transport truck.

Just as there is organic chemistry, there also exists inorganic chemistry. The organic one may lead in numbers, but the inorganic makes up for it in mass. Water is inorganic, so are rocks, metals, sand, salt of the earth and our meals, air is inorganic…

Let’s assume that you have come across a product which claims to be 99% organic. To look at that closer we will need to introduce the structure of an average skin care product – the cream. Again on average, creams contain about 80% water. Water is inorganic, and although it is fundamental in farming, it doesn’t grow on fields, with or without pesticides. So, calling water ‘organic’ is wrong in both meanings of the word. Now, if the above claim meant that out of the remaining 20% of the cream, 99% is organic (whether farmed or not)...well, that may not be the kind of guessing math you are interested in, or have the time for, when shopping for a skin care product. But I will tell you that the actual percentage for our example in that case comes to 19.8%. Now, if you are generous and willing to forgive the people behind such claim dismissing water from the product, the whole 80% of it, just to impress you, I am not. Because math also has a fair share of the Universe and it tends to make things clear.

The reasons for preferring organic are very easy to understand – you live a healthy lifestyle, and your skin care is part of it. Pesticides are toxins. Some of them, or their close relatives, have been used as chemical weapons in First World War. When that immensely tragic and senseless war was over, instead of killing people, these chemicals were applied to helping farmers get rid of the pests that decimated the crops. This may sound to you as a horror story, but the concentrations used were much, much smaller – not only because pests are smaller than people are, and could be eliminated with less, but also because neither farmers nor Government wanted the public poisoned.

Over the years and the decades that followed since the introduction of pesticides, many regulations were established, and after much debate and outrage the maximums were set for all of these chemicals. Since they remained in the crops after being applied, they consequently got into food. Not everything stayed on the fields however, a lot of it was washed away and pesticides also entered the water systems of our planet. Many disillusioned people don’t believe that organic farming makes much difference in terms of the quantity of pesticides present in the final product, since pesticides have reached even the most pristine and remote parts of Earth. Well, that is hard to tell and falls into a domain of personal choice– what is little or negligible for one person is too much and unacceptable for another. But organic farming is not only about pesticides. It is also about diversity and preserving native as well as ancient species, opposing corporate and monoculture farming, and much more. On the other hand, a reminder is due - agriculture is a global business, and make no mistake about it, it is business.

Back to the presence of pesticides in everything – they are simply there. I don’t think that there are any plants, or animals, whether wild or cultivated, without traceable amounts of pesticides in their tissue. If I am wrong, I will be happy to learn about that.
Quantities will vary depending on many factors – the soil itself, the amount of rainfall in the area, the underground water systems, it will depend on the kind of crops as well... – the amounts of pesticides are supposed to and should be much smaller in organically grown produce than otherwise. That is why there are certification boards who follow and verify the content, based on criteria adopted by a particular state, province, or federal body. Perhaps not totally related to this but still important to me, I will mention that although the Government is there to protect the interests of the public, it is not always so. To illustrate that, I will use my personal grudge, or one of them - the presence of colourants in food. Food colourings are Government approved, tested and so on – but I am strongly opposed to them. They shouldn’t be there at all! Sugar is needed, so is salt, all kinds of things, but colourings are not. They simply shouldn’t be there! I don’t think you need a reminder how many of these products are marketed to children.

Back to organically grown products and ingredients: since pesticides are highly toxic, their allowed maximums are expressed in PPM. If percentage is parts per 100, PPM is parts per million. If we now look again at our example above, for which we reduced ‘99% organic’ to 19.8% effectively, it will demonstrate for us the opposite case as well – if the product had no organically grown ingredients whatsoever, since 80% of it is water (which is distilled, and therefore free of everything else but water) the residue of pesticides can be present only in the remaining 20% of the cream. Which reduces the amount of expected residue five times.

Now let’s look closer at that 20% of the cream where so much seems to be happening. Remember, ‘organic’ as in organically grown, can apply only to ingredients that have actually been grown – in this case that would mean plant extracts, if there are any, vegetal oils and essential oils, again, if there are any. Of course, these ingredients haven’t been freshly picked in the fields and then put in your cream – they have been extracted by different methods from original plant material, but the trip from the field to the actual ingredient is a short one, without much processing.

There is no cream that contains only these ingredients. Some simple, old-fashioned ointments have always been made with them and addition of beeswax, and these traditions survive to this day, but they don’t have a wide application in today’s skin care. If you are interested to learn more about the composition and history of skin care, you can read my article ‘Tempest in a Jar’.

Back in the 21st century of our lives - plant extracts, vegetal oils and essential oils are not the only ingredients that make a skin cream. What else we may find inside? (And we’ll assume that we are looking at a natural product). Let’s take vitamins, for instance. They are highly desired ingredients, for all their wonderful effects on the skin. Vitamins are produced by large chemical companies. Skin care manufacturers, whether large or small, do not make their own vitamins. Some of them may prepare their own plant extracts, but they simply can not produce all the ingredients they use.

Although skin care formulas are highly protected as proprietary secrets and even when very similar they still vary from one manufacturer to another, they use fatty alcohols, acids or esters for their emollient properties. These compounds are natural components of vegetal oils. Which brings us to the purpose of this section: vitamins, and materials I just mentioned, as well as some other components of creams, are natural chemicals. They have been extracted from the original, usually plant material, and are used in the pure form. This process of extraction eliminates the benevolent, inert and toxic components alike, which would have been present in the original material. What that means is that, although there will be some traces of residue in these pure ingredients due to the processing, they are very unlikely to be pesticides. And even if they are, that residue would have been reduced perhaps a hundred fold – which would make it more pure than even an organically grown produce.

In addition, the cream will have preservatives, fragrance of some kind, and a number of other ingredients. And if we look again at the 19.8% that we have reduced the original claim of ‘99% organic’ to, although impossible to verify without knowing the exact formula, an estimation can be made that the actual organic, as in organically grown, content of said product is closer to 15%, or 10%, or even less.

Is having 10% of the cream with organically grown ingredients bad? Of course not! To the contrary. But, ‘99% organic’ is hardly implying 10%, is it? It may still be a wonderful cream, exactly what you need for your skin care problems and concerns - however, if you bought it based on that claim, you didn’t get what you expected.

Is ‘99% organic’ possible at all? Yes, in cases of aromatherapy oils, or pure butters for instance – these kinds of products do have a use in skin care. However, the staple of any skin care line is a cream, and that’s why I chose it as an example for this short analysis.

The logic and the truth behind this article are disheartening when you realize that we too are the inseparable part of the world, which has been systematically polluted over the past couple of centuries. All the efforts put into resisting that trend are worth while, in my personal view. But there is also an encouraging part to this, and a very important point to understand – whether organic or not, your cream is unlikely to increase measurably the intake of pesticides by your body.

And if this was not enough to put at ease your worries about the pesticides, there is yet another turn in this story.

To be continued...

To your beauty and health,

Ivana K.

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